Drought conditions across South Dakota have created forage, especially “hay”, shortages for some producers. Typically, beef cow/calf producers depend on hay as the primary feed ingredient for winter-feeding programs. However, research has shown that a variety of feedstuffs can be utilized to meet the cows’ nutrient requirements with similar performance to hay or hay plus supplement ration.

Research at Ohio State University reported that pregnant beef cows can be fed as little as 3 pounds of hay plus corn and supplements to meet nutrient requirements. Purdue University research has also shown that during the last trimester of gestation hay on a dry matter basis could be limited to 0.5 and 1% of body weight daily. Rations were balanced to meet nutrient requirements, and performance (weight gain) was equal or greater compared to cows receiving hay at 2% of body weight. In both of these research projects, corn plus a protein supplement were used to balance the ration.

Management Considerations

From a financial standpoint current corn prices at less than $3.00 per bushel, makes it appealing to be included in beef cow rations. However, switching a feeding system from a forage-based to a concentrate-based ration creates some management considerations.

  • One of these challenges is facilities, primarily bunk space. When limit feeding, cows should have at least 30 inches per head of bunk space.
  • Pens should provide at least 500 square feet per head. If cattle are fed in a pasture setting, cattle will continue to graze (overgraze) because their nutrient requirements are met before dry matter intake hits 100%.
  • Proper bunk management is critical to avoid digestive upsets, especially when high-starch feedstuffs are fed.
  • Minerals and vitamins may be consumed in excess if offered free choice when animals are limit fed. These can be included in the mixed ration or consumption can be controlled by using white salt in the mineral-vitamin supplement.

If a producer lacks proper facilities and/or equipment to deliver a concentrate-based diet, finding other high-forage feed ingredients could be a better option. Transportation costs need to be considered as this can increase the price per ton dramatically. Finding these feed ingredients can also be difficult, so starting early can help with locating the desired feedstuffs and maybe at a lower price.

Alternative Feedstuffs

Below is a listing of a few alternatives feedstuffs that can be incorporated into beef cow rations to reduce the amount of hay.

  • Beet Pulp/Tailings: Sugar beet pulp has a similar nutrient profile to corn silage. It can be used in cow rations, however, knowing the moisture content is critical to ensure the appropriate nutrients are delivered. Beet pulp can be purchased as wet or dry; wet pulp will limit the distance producers want to transport this product. Beet tailings are often the rejected beets including small beets, broken or damaged beets, and foreign materials. Tailings are often high in moisture (approximately 80%). Tailings feed value varies, however, typical feed values would be similar to corn silage on a dry matter basis.
  • Soybean Hulls: Soyhulls are high in fiber, which makes them a good substitute for forage. Additionally, they may contain high levels of energy. Loose soyhulls are difficult to transport, so typically the pelleted form is used, which increases the density and allows larger ton volumes to be transported at one time.
  • Cornstalks: Cornstalks or corn stover can be used as a portion of gestating beef cow diets. Nutrient content is similar to grazing cornstalks. Grinding corn stalk bales will reduce sorting and a higher percentage of the bale will be consumed. When high levels of corn stalks are included in the ration, phosphorus and vitamin A supplementation should be considered.
  • Wheat Middlings: Wheat midds is a versatile and very palatable feedstuff. Nutrient content is approximately 18% crude protein and 80% TDN. Wheat midds are often used in many commercial supplements so finding them at a reasonable cost can be difficult.
  • Small grain straws: Cereal grain straws can be incorporated into beef cow rations. Straw can be combined with other feedstuffs to meet a cow’s nutrient requirements. Year-old straw is often more palatable than new “fresh” straw. Grinding straw can increase intake by 10 to 15%.

The Bottom Line

Developing a winter ration can be difficult during drought conditions due to limited forage availability. However, with advanced planning a good winter feeding program can be developed at a reasonable cost.